In mid-May the extremist group known as the Islamic State managed to take control of the city of Ramadi in Anbar, and in doing so gained control over much of the central Iraqi province. Since then authorities in neighbouring Karbala province have become obsessed with securing the borders between the two.
It is hardly surprising people in Karbala are worried about their new neighbours. Karbala is a relatively conservative, Shiite-Muslim-majority province and home to the city of Karbala, a major seat of Shia religious learning and one of Shiite Islams' holiest cities. The Islamic State, or IS group, which bases its ideology on an extreme form of Sunni Islam and which considers Shiites apostates, has continued to make threats against Karbala and its residents because of the province’s significance.
“The IS group is an international organization,” says Jawad Idan, a Karbala resident whose fears are typical of many other locals' in the city. “It seems to have military expertise and plans battles well. We should be well prepared to confront them.”
One of the new security measures includes a call by religious authorities to holidaying university students; they've been asked to go and spend their summer holidays doing military training should they be called upon to defend Shiite Muslim’s most holy sites. Hundreds of students have responded to the call although observers say they don't seem particularly enthusiastic about any actual fighting.
These kinds of fears are the reason why provincial authorities have authorised a number of precautionary measures. But not all of them are going to be much use, say critics. In fact, some, like the closing of certain roads is likely to do Karbala locals more harm than good, they say.
One of the most obvious measures is a 45-kilometre long trench that is being dug on the provincial borders and which is supposed to separate the two areas. The trench is around 65 kilometres away from the nearest city and it is currently being built by an Iraqi construction company at a price tag of around US$12 million.
“The trench is supported by human guards and there are control and watch towers carefully distributed along the trench too,” says the head of the Karbala provincial council's security committee, Aqeel al-Masoudi. “And then there are further guard posts along the borders between Karbala and Anbar.”
The idea of the trench apparently came after recommendations from senior security officers who assessed the many different methods that the IS group had used when they stormed cities, in some cases, successfully. Having said that nobody has quite figured out exactly why and how the IS group continue to be so successful.
If the IS group did attack, it would be very hard to predict how they might do so, says one retired army officer, Abbas Abdul-Amir, before pointing out that trenches are not the deterrent they once were.
“The IS group might not target Karbala in a traditional way,” Abdul-Amir points out. “They might not send troops across the border. They might slowly build up the number of fighters they have inside Karbala after those fighters enter the province like any other ordinary Iraqi.”
The IS group is well known for using sleeper cells. In addition Abdul-Amir argues that the IS group have weapons that can easily cross a trench. For example, the IS group is known to have some Katyusha rocket launchers and in December 2014, several rockets hit neighbourhoods south of Karbala city. The rockets had apparently been fired from mobile platforms in the Anbar desert.
Another method Karbala authorities have used to allay locals' fears is to close roads that are border crossings. Just over a month ago, seven car bombs were discovered as the drivers tried to cross over into Karbala from Anbar. Rumour, apparently via leaks from security forces, had it that the car bombs would have targeted important places in the city and that the bombings would be followed by an attack on the province by fighters in sleeper cells.
“The Nukhayb crossing point is no longer safe,” the province's deputy governor, Jassim al-Fatlawi, told NIQASH. “Because the border crossings between Iraq and Syria have fallen under the control of the IS group and because this organization now controls large parts of the international road into Jordan.”
Every week hundreds of trucks come to Karbala from Syria and Jordan carrying all kinds of merchandise from those countries, as well as those imported through Jordan's Port of Aqaba. However a lot of the goods don't seem to have been properly documented, with no origin, no date of production or expiry, or any other vital information, and are arousing the suspicions of Karbala's authorities.
In early July, Karbala authorities destroyed a large quantity of eggs, coming to Karbala through Ramadi in Anbar, because of a lack of information. In the shipment papers they could only find the truck drivers' names.
Part of the reason for this, Karbala authorities and export regulators fear, is IS' involvement in the shipping. They believe that the trade through the Nukhayb crossing is actually an excellent source of income for the IS group, who control the roads and charge taxes of each driver passing through.
Closing the roads was necessary not just for security reasons but also to deprive the IS group of lucrative business. This has already had an impact on Karbala traders and merchants, some of whom now have no options for shipping and no alternative but to raise prices, directly affecting Karbala's people.
“The local authorities should have notified merchants earlier so we could search for alternative markets and shipping,” complains one local trader, Abdul-Hussein Salman. “Now all my goods are stuck on the roads.”